Hair today, gone tomorrow. Such is the common lament of many men and women entering midlife. By age 50, more than half of Caucasian men will have some degree of balding. And about 40 percent of women, in general, will be affected by the time they settle into their 70s. Aside from surgical plugs or drugs, is there hope for your formerly thick mane? Can herbs or nutrition help?
What Is Normal—and What Isn’t?
Hair is produced by follicles, tiny bulb-shaped appendages embedded in your scalp. Most of these miniscule factories are busily sprouting hair, but at any given time about 10 to 15 percent of them are resting. A resting follicle sheds its hair after a few months, then normally resumes production again. Each day, you shed about 50 to 100 of the more than 100,000 hairs on your head. If too many follicles enter rest or are damaged or killed, your rate of replacement may not keep up, eventually causing your hair to thin out visibly. This excessive hair loss is called alopecia.
The most common form of alopecia is a gradual thinning that develops over several years. Androgenetic alopecia, as it usually is called, is most conspicuous in men as a receding hairline or balding crown. Women also may be affected, though their hair tends to thin more diffusely. Susceptibility in men likely is linked to genetics and to conversion of the male hormone testosterone to DHT (dihydrotestosterone), which drives too many follicles into early retirement. In women, hormonal changes arising from menopause, aging and thyroid sluggishness might be at play. Many drugs—including beta blockers, anti-cholesterol medications and blood thinners—also can aggravate hair loss.
A less common form of hair loss, called alopecia areata, tends to be patchy. Appearing over weeks or months, it usually results from acute disturbances that induce follicles to go dormant. Common triggers are chemotherapy, advanced infections, severe allergies, autoimmune flare-ups and acute emotional stress, according to a 2006 study from Autoimmunity Reviews. Remove the acute trigger, and hair usually grows back eventually with good nutrition.
Healthy Compounds Block: Hair-Growth Inhibitors
We’re hearing a lot about a family of flavonoids known as procyanidins—antioxidants present in many plants, such as apples, barley, grape seeds, cocoa, blueberries, green tea and rosehips. Japanese researchers have found procyanidins help hair to regrow in some balding men. Working with an apple procyanidin called B-2, the Japanese double-blind trial, reported in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, said that a twice-daily topical application of a 0.7 percent solution increased new hair production, whereas untreated men continued to lose hair. After six months, men receiving the treatment sprouted on average about three new hairs per square centimeter of treated scalp. However, the researchers don’t claim B-2 will work for everyone.
Because procyanidins (also called oligomeric proanthocyanidins) are antioxidants, they act to neutralize damaging free radicals that can cause inflammation and damage hair follicles. They also obstruct the production or action of hair growth inhibitors formed from testosterone. Those inhibitors bind to hair follicles, redirecting them from active growth to rest. So far, the research has focused on men, but procyanidins might help some women whose alopecia is linked to an estrogen-testosterone imbalance (e.g., from menopause).
What to Avoid
Certain foods may exacerbate hair loss. Saturated fats, for example, are pro-inflammatory, so you’d be wise to bypass the burgers and fries. For some people, allergies to dairy or animal products cause inflammation and hair loss. And megadoses of vitamin A (as well as drugs derived from vitamin A, such as those for acne) also can be problematic.
You can purchase procyanidins as hair tonics for topical use. Commercial topical tonics based on extracts from apples—the fruit used in the Japanese trials—can be expensive (for example, $50 or more for a one-month supply), but other foods are good sources, too, so it’s wise to shop around. Formulations containing a mixture of procyanidins (rather than just the B-2 variety) are worth trying, as several procyanidins have been found to be beneficial. They also are available as supplements, but how well these work is not known. And it can’t hurt to eat a good variety of fruits, vegetables and other procyanidin-rich foods.
Essential Oils Cleanse and Stimulate
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a centuries-old remedy for hair loss and is widely recommended by natural-health practitioners for stimulating hair growth. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, rosemary applied topically can promote new cell growth in the scalp, at least in part by curbing the buildup of scalp oil (sebum), which can plug follicles.
Rosemary also contains an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound called rosmarinic acid. This major constituent reduces the production of leukotriene B4, an inflammatory chemical produced in the body and whose action might injure the follicle and contribute to excessive hair loss. Further, rosmarinic acid is antiviral and antibiotic, and helps disinfect the scalp. It is well absorbed from the skin or gastrointestinal tract, so even sipping a cup of rosemary tea might indirectly benefit your hair.
Rosemary might help to replenish bald patches. A double-blind study done in Scotland with sufferers of alopecia areata reported in the Archives of Dermatology that a blend of rosemary and other essential oils accelerated hair regrowth. One group of patients had a daily scalp massage with essential oils of rosemary, thyme, lavender and cedarwood, contained in a carrier mixture of jojoba and grapeseed oils, while a second group used only the carrier oils. Two dermatologists then evaluated hair regrowth after seven months. Forty-four percent of those receiving the essential oils improved visibly compared to only 15 percent of the other group. Traditionally, oils such as lavender and cedarwood are considered balancing oils that prevent further hair loss, possibly a result of their antiseptic properties.
To use rosemary or other essential oils, add 3 to 4 drops of essential oil (or a blend) to a tablespoon of a light-textured carrier oil, such as jojoba, grapeseed, almond or olive oil. Massage gently into the scalp, moving the skin over the bone rather than dragging your fingers across hair roots; leave in for about an hour, then wash hair as usual. Or add a few drops of essential oil (without carrier oil) to your shampoo.
Herbs and Nutrients Promote Circulation
Hair follicles need food and oxygen to do their job. Ensure you’re getting enough of the following nutrients in your diet: Essential fatty acids oxygenate cell tissues, reduce inflammation and transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K to follicles. Omega-3 fatty acids often are lacking in our diets—the best sources are flaxseeds (2 to 4 tablespoons daily), flaxseed oil (1 tablespoon daily), or cold-water fish, such as salmon or herring (2 to 3 servings weekly). Other good sources are avocados, nuts and nut oils.
B vitamins assist many functions, including nutrient digestion and transport. Deficiencies are common under stress and can contribute to hair loss. Eat wheat germ or brewer’s yeast, or try a supplement, such as a timed-release stress formulation.
Zinc supports protein (e.g., hair keratin) synthesis. Deficiencies of the mineral are typical in Western diets, which can also contribute to celiac disease and other inflammatory conditions that aggravate hair loss. Get zinc from oysters (the richest source) and other shellfish, lean red meats, skinless poultry or lowfat cheese. Or supplement with 30 mg a day.
Iron brings oxygen to hair follicles. It commonly is deficient in women who are menstruating regularly. Iron sources include lean meats, fish, beans and peas; supplement only if anemia is diagnosed, and then preferably with a chelated form.
Silicic acid (silica) helps maintain the integrity of blood vessel walls for good circulation. Superior sources are unrefined oats and other whole-grain cereals. Orthosilicic acid, a highly bioavailable form, is available in supplements. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is a silica-rich herb, but some experts don’t recommend taking it because it absorbs heavy metals too readily from the soil.
On a personal note, when I notice my hair shedding more than usual, I eat several eggs (a complete nutrient provider) and an avocado weekly, and I enjoy a serving of oatmeal with flaxseeds most days until I see an improvement. These foods augment my supply of B vitamins, essential fatty acids, silica and other nutrients, and it’s certainly no hardship to eat them.
Saw Palmetto Still a Mystery
Saw palmetto berry (Serenoa repens), a traditional treatment for prostate enlargement, often is recommended as a remedy for baldness. Constituents in the herb disrupt the formation of DHT (dihydrotestosterone) from testosterone, a likely contributor to male pattern baldness. It might help men with mild to moderate baldness, but the studies on hair regeneration are still preliminary. The berries also are anti-inflammatory. Saw palmetto berries are available dried, or as teas, capsules, tinctures and other extracts.
Gina Mohammed, Ph.D., is a plant physiologist in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. She is the author of Catnip and Kerosene Grass: What Plants Teach Us About Life (www.CandlenutBooks.com).
The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Hair Loss,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at editor@HerbsForHealth.com.